Readers of LampLight know that Kevin Lucia is no stranger around here. His new collection set in Clifton Heights, The Things You Need, is out now. Check out the excerpt below and pick up a copy!
And, also lingering in Clifton Heights, check out Drowned, the first episode of the LampLight Radio Play!
Long Night in the Valley
by Kevin Lucia
“What the hell’s wrong with you guys? Get your asses in gear!"
Jimmy Malfi rapped the pitted mahogany bar in frustration. He was a short man with narrow shoulders, arthritic knuckles and a scruffy, weathered face. A fixture at The Stumble Inn, he was the kind of avid sports fan who hadn’t ever played a single game of any kind in his life, but held strong opinions about how every sport should be played, regardless. His years of viewing games vicariously from the sidelines had made Jimmy, in his own mind, a veritable expert, so not only was he a fixture at the bar, but also at every Clifton Heights home sporting event.
Despite his moderately bombastic, self-proclaimed sports genius, however, Jimmy was essentially harmless. Clifton Heights folks viewed him with tolerant good humor, and over the years, his presence at home sporting events had become talismanic in nature. Jimmy sitting in the stands or standing on the sideline most likely meant victory, but his absence brought ill tidings of doom for the Clifton Heights team in question.
At the moment, Jimmy’s main concern was professional basketball, as he rapped the bar again in anger. “Damn it. Got money on this game, but the Knicks’re playing like a bunch of know-nothing piss-ants in junior high. Running around like chickens with their heads cut off!”
He waved at the small television mounted on the wall, at the end of the bar. “Down twenty-five. Twenty-five. So much for this ‘championship’ season the papers’ve been talking about.”
Jimmy scowled at the five harried blue figures racing around five white figures who appeared confident and poised. One of the Knicks’ guards (a blue figure) launched an awkward, off-balance three-point shot. Jimmy tracked it hopefully, squeezing his hand into a fist…
The basketball ricocheted off the rim.
Tinny applause roared from the television as a player in white grabbed the rebound and dribbled up the court.
Jimmy pounded the bar. “Damn! Last year, the Knicks averaged nearly a hundred points a game,” he complained to the bartender, Gus Ambrose, who was watching the game with him from the other side of the bar. “It’s the middle of the third quarter and they’ve barely cracked sixty. What the hell?”
Gus shrugged broad shoulders, his bland expression that of every bartender across the world who had to deal with several Jimmy Malfi’s every single night. “It’s a pre-season game, Jimmy,” he said as he wiped down the bar absentmindedly. “Why in the world would you bet on a pre-season game? ”
“Because Buster had a line on these guys. Said they were going to wipe floor with the Spurs tonight; that all those trades they got over the off-season made them contenders, real contenders this year!”
Another distant sounding roar from the television as the home crowd – San Antonio – voiced their appreciation. Jimmy scowled and waved again. “This sure ain’t the look of a championship contender, I’ll tell you that!”
Gus flipped the towel onto his left shoulder and hung it there, crossed his arms and shrugged. “Guess maybe Buster should stick with running his cab business instead of trying to be a bookie.”
Jimmy grabbed his nearly empty mug of beer. “Ain’t that the God’s honest truth.” He tossed back his drink, thumped it back down on the bar and slid it toward Gus. Without taking his eyes off the television, Gus grabbed the mug, took it over to the Saranack Black & Tan tap, and began filling it. “It’s Halloween, Jimmy. Shouldn’t you be out trick or treating with the grandkids, or something?”
“Ah, their grandmother’s takin em out with my daughter. She loves that stuff. Me? After workin all day at the quarry? No thanks. Besides,” he gestured with one hand at the television as he accepted his refilled beer with the other, “this is enough of a horror show, for Pete’s sake.” Another burst of applause. “C’mon! Stop throwin away the damn ball!”
Sitting near the opposite end of the bar, Micah Cassidy stared into the mirror behind rows of liquor glasses, nursing his beer. He was trying to ignore the conversation between Jimmy and Gus, though it was nearly impossible, given that, with the exception of a table in the back filled with mill workers quietly drinking, they were the only ones there. Also, they were talking basketball, a subject Micah couldn’t ignore, even if a nuclear war raged around him.
Which didn’t make sense, of course. After everything that had happened, you’d think he’d hate the game, and would avoid it like the plague. To be fair, he didn’t watch it on television anymore, and didn’t read the sports page every day, like he used to. However, despite his best intentions, when basketball was mentioned within hearing, his ears always pricked up. Though he rarely joined the conversation, he couldn’t ever help but follow it.
Micah sighed as his gaze traveled the length of the bar. It was Halloween night, part of the reason why The Stumble Inn was so empty. Most of the after-work regulars were either out trick-or-treating with their kids, or standing watch over their homes in their annual vain attempt to ward off the legions of Clifton Heights teens armed with eggs, soap and toilet paper. The guys from the lumber mill, drinking at that table near the back, were probably single, or at least didn’t have kids, or lived in apartments, or didn’t care about their windows being soaped or theirs cars getting egged.
Just like him, really. He and Amy had no kids, and he didn’t care much what the teens did tonight. He’d just clean it up tomorrow. Besides, they didn’t see many teens where they lived, out on Gato Road. Not even on Halloween night. Too far out of town. Worst that had happened last year was a few jack o’lanterns trashed, and that was it.
Gus had made half-hearted attempt to decorate for the season. He’d strung orange lights around the mirror behind the bar, and sitting at regular intervals among the liquor bottles were plastic, electric light-up Jack o’Lanterns. Probably everyone’s favorite decoration was the life-sized cardboard cutout of Elvira mounted to the wall next to the men’s room. It always gathered several jokes and comments, and even one or two drunken marriage proposals, every Halloween.
“Dammit,” Jimmy spat, apparently disgusted by another Knicks mistake. “Haven’t you guys ever hear of ball movement? Work the ball around the perimeter, for God’s sake! At least try to find the open man!”
Micah grunted, knowing he should keep quietand take the path of least resistance, as he always did. It’s what he’d done for the past twenty years, after all. It was how he’d managed to survive, emotionally. Keep quiet, stay out of the conversation, except when he felt moved to speak.
Which he did tonight. Because of course, even though he didn’t read the sports page nearly as much as he used to…that also didn’t mean he never read it.
“It’s San Antonio’s man-to-man defense,” he said, not looking up, but staring into the plastic leer of a jack o-lantern on the other side of the bar. “They’ve perfected their switches and hedges to the point most teams can’t get two or three passes off before they turn the ball over. Also forces run and gun teams to play a half-court offense and use up the whole shot clock. Slows running teams down, forcing them out of their fast break.”
Micah could almost feel Jimmy turning a skeptical gaze on him, but he didn’t look up, just continued to stare into the plastic jack o’lantern’s black, triangle eyes. “The Knicks are a fast break team. Half-court offense isn’t their strength. So San Antonio tightens the screws of their half-court defense, hedging or switching on almost every screen or pick and roll, which forces the Knicks to grind out the clock, which they don’t like to do. They like to score quick and hard, usually off the second pass, to keep other teams off-balance. The more half-court offense they’re forced to play, the more they have to pass the ball around, the sloppier they get.”
Cheers again exploded from the television. Jimmy thumped his fist again on the bar. “Sumbitch. Another turnover, and San Antonio scores again.”
Micah looked up and met Jimmy’s rueful grimace. “Looks like you’re right,” Jimmy growled. “Knicks can’t make more than three passes before they cough up the damn ball.”
Micah shrugged, offering Jimmy only a small smile, nothing more. He shouldn’t have spoken. If he stopped now and didn’t say anything more, maybe the old guy would forget about him and go back to the game, instead of…
“Y’know, this guy knows his ball,” Jimmy said to Gus Ambrose. “He play somewhere?”
Gus smiled as he picked up a glass mug and started toweling it off. He was primed to tell the story, like always. Micah looked down in his beer and cursed silently. He didn’t blame Gus. He meant well. It was his fault. He should’ve kept quiet.
“C’mon, Jimmy. I’m disappointed in you. You’ve never heard of Micah Cassidy, from Old Forge High?”
Jimmy shook his head. “I’m a loyal Clifton Heights fan, Gus. You know that. If it ain’t happenin in the ’Heights, it ain’t happenin.”
“Well then.” Gus waved in his direction. “This is Micah Cassidy. He’s…oh, hell. Micah, do you mind if..?”
To his credit, Gus looked abashed at nearly rambling into his story without asking permission first. Micah supposed if he’d stopped Gus the first time he’d told his tale to a Stumble Inn patron, or said something to him afterward, the talkative bartender wouldn’t have kept repeating it all these years. But it was too late now. Micah always knew if he did say something, Gus would feel bad for a night or two, then retell the whole story to someone else without hesitation another time. He waved, giving Gus permission to continue. Besides.
If things went the way he was planning, it would be the last time Micah had to hear it.
“This is Micah Cassidy,” Gus continued, “one of the best ball players ever to play here in Webb County. Four-year varsity starter at Old Forge High. Scored over 2,000 points in his high school career. Twenty years later he still holds the number one spot in most points scored in Section Two, Class C. Division one scouts from all over were calling him. Lots of scouts thought he could go pro. If not the NBA, then overseas in Europe.”
Micah looked away, back into those black triangle eyes on the other side of the bar, feeling Jimmy Malfi giving him a skeptical eye, like everyone did when Gus spun his tale. “DI or pro ball, huh? Don’t look like much. Not very tall, is he?” Jimmy glanced at him, grinning. “No offense, course.”
Micah shrugged, noting Gus’ stance – hand on the bar, the other gesturing – as he defended Micah’s size, like he’d done so many times before. “Maybe not, but Micah here was lightening fast. Quick as a jackrabbit. He dribbled the basketball like it was a yo-yo on a string. Was a hawk on defense. Led the conference in steals two years running. And his jump shot, friend. Man alive. Like a machine. Perfect mechanics, every single time.”
Micah had turned away, but in his mind, he saw Gus shaking his head, amazement etched into his features, as if he’d just watched Micah drop thirty points. “He still holds the record for highest career field-goal percentage, and I swear he shot better the harder defenses played him. Plus, he could jump outta the gym. Like you say, wouldn’t believe it to look at him, but I can’t count how many times I saw him drive the lane and dunk over players twice his size. Micah here landed a full-ride to Syracuse. He would’ve blown it up there, I know it.”
Micah’s cue. He knew it well. Much as he hated the attention, he couldn’t blow off Gus. The guy would be crushed, in his own way, because then he wouldn’t be able to vigorously defend Micah’s greatness. “C’mon, Gus,” he protested weakly. “Lot of great players on Syracuse’s squad that year.” He looked away from the plastic jack o’lantern and offered Gus and Jimmy a weak grin. “I would’ve been lucky to play twenty minutes a game.”
Gus waved, beaming; obviously delighted Micah was playing along. “No way. You would’ve been exactly what they needed that year. A marksman from beyond the three-point arc who was also a playmaker off the dribble. You would’ve started freshman year. I’m sure of it.”
Micah gave in and shrugged; playing the role Gus wanted him to. He knew from experience that if he did, the whole spiel would end sooner. “Doesn’t matter now, anyway.”
Gus folded his arms, somber expression darkening his face as he gazed out the front window. “Yeah. Damn shame.”
He said nothing for several seconds. Staring into the middle distance, blithely ignoring Jimmy, who in turn was staring at Gus, eyes wide and curious. Despite himself, Micah always smiled at this, because – no two ways about it – Gus was the consummate showman. He’d keep on staring out the front window, not saying a word until…
“Well?” Jimmy blurted, face drawn tight in anticipation. “Are you gonna tell the story or ain’t ya?”
Gus nodded slowly. Smiling a little now, satisfied in the suspense he’d created. “That young man,” Gus said as he pointed at Micah, “sacrificed his career – busted up his knee – trying to save a boy’s life.”
This part Micah hated. For some reason, tonight it felt worse than usual. All his humor at Gus’ bragging faded as a black pit opened inside him. He turned away and mumbled, “But I didn’t save him, Gus.”
Usually, he feigned speechlessness to get things over with. Tonight, however, fresh guilt stabbed his guts anew.
“Don’t matter,” Gus said, voice full of pride. Which should’ve been one consolation, at least. Gus retold the story because he was proud of him. Micah tried to take comfort from that…
But he couldn’t.
Because it was a lie. All of it.
And tonight, he was going to put an end to it, one way or another.
“C’mon now,” Jimmy said, the Knicks/San Antonio game forgotten. “You ain’t any closer to telling me the story. If you’re gonna tell it, let’s get on with it.”
“Well, it’s a helluva story. Happened at Black Foot Valley Sports Camp, twenty years ago. After Micah’s senior year,” he nodded at him. “Micah’s future was signed and sealed, but he sacrificed it trying to save a kid’s life.”
Jimmy frowned. “Blackfoot Valley. That’s outside town somewhere, right?”
“Yep. Up on Kipp Hill Road. A big complex for all sorts of summer sports camps. Basketball, football, baseball, soccer, and cheerleading. Though what the hell they did at cheerleading camp is beyond me. Maybe do drills waving their pom-poms while they practiced cheering.”
Gus waved and continued. “They had two sports fields and a dozen outdoor asphalt basketball courts, with twenty cabins for the kids to stay overnight. It was a sleepover camp. Some of Webb County’s best basketball players – hell, some of the best in Northern New York – cut their teeth as campers and when they got older, as counselors. The counselors kept order in the cabins, referred the games, sometimes coached.”
“But it ain’t running no more, is it?”
Gus shook his head. “Not for a while. Folks these days hire personal trainers because everyone’s kid is a superstar and deserves individual training, right? Going to a camp where they whip your ass into shape ain’t the ‘in’ thing these days. But,” Gus sighed, “I’d be lying if I said what happened didn’t hurt the camp’s rep some.”
Jimmy motioned with his hand, an impatient let’s go on with it gesture. “So what happened? I heard somethin happened out there, just not what.”
“There’s a deep gorge in the woods behind the camp. Blackfoot Valley itself. One of the kids went wandering into the woods at night. A kid from Micah’s cabin. Now, Micah was on rounds when he checked his cabin and found the kid gone. He searched all over the camp. Couldn’t find the kid, so he ducked into the woods behind the camp, finally spotted this kid lying at the bottom of the gorge. Micah tried to reach him, thinking it wasn’t that far down…when he slipped. Rolled halfway down and tore ligaments and cartridge, cracked the kneecap…wracked the whole thing up.”
“Hell,” Jimmy breathed. He looked Micah up and down. Micah saw his gaze linger on the metal-hinged brace he wore over his pants on his right knee.
Jimmy’s eyes widened. “Damn. Lucky you can walk at all.”
Micah swallowed and managed (mostly because it was expected of him) a reply. “I couldn’t for a while. It took a few surgeries and lots of therapy. I still have to wear this brace, though. I get around okay, but…”
“Damn,” Jimmy said again, shaking his head. To Gus: “Kids’ parents probably screamed holy hell.”
Gus nodded. “Sure enough. Luckily another counselor noticed Micah missing after a while, so he went to the caretaker’s house to raise the alarm. They found Micah and the kid – think his last name was Phelps, now – out there in the gorge. But the shit hit the fan the next day. Not sure if the camp ever got sued, but I know the whole thing hurt its image, bad.”
Like he always did, as if he’d memorized every step in a carefully choreographed dance, Gus nodded somberly at Micah. “Helluva thing Micah did. With a big future waiting for him, college education paid for…him sacrificing everything to try and save that kid.”
Guilt soured the beer in Micah’s stomach, as the past whispered to him, as it always did at this part…
don’t be a hero, Micah
you’re no hero
you’re a special kind of stupid
that’s what you are
With great effort, he pushed the ghostly words away. “I didn’t do anything. Never got near to saving him.” Micah choked down a surge of self-loathing as he mumbled into his beer, “I’m no hero.”
"Hell you ain’t. You coulda been playing poker or hoops like the other counselors, but you were doing your job. If you’d been slacking off like the others, nobody would’ve found Phelps until it was too late. Makes you a hero in my book.”
A hot flash pulsed through Micah, unexpected in its intensity. He was supposed keep his peace. Maybe mumble another feeble protest, against which Gus would once again insist his hero-status, but for some reason he couldn’t do it. He knew deviating from the script meant attracting unwanted attention, and a part of him wanted to do as usual: Stay quiet. Avoid making waves.
But tonight he couldn’t play the role of the small-town hero in Gus’ little passion-play, no matter the bartender’s good intentions. He snapped his head up and pinned Gus with a hot stare. The bartender paused, mouth gaping at this unexpected deviation.
“What happened to Phelps, Gus? Tony Phelps. Know what happened to him? Do you?”
Gus stared at him, hands lying limp on the bar, unable to cope with Micah’s sudden digression from their well-practiced script. Micah focused on Jimmy instead. “Want to know what happened to this kid I ‘saved?’ The kid I threw away my basketball career for? Huh?”
Without waiting for an answer, Micah plunged ahead. “He never woke up. Broke his skull. Bled all over his brain. He died a week later. So, yeah. I ‘saved’ him. So he could lie in the hospital like a vegetable for a week before croaking. That’s what I sacrificed my career for. One more week of breathing for a vegetable.”
An oppressive silence fell over the bar, broken only by the tinny screams from the small television mounted on the wall, long forgotten. Micah covered his face with a hand and rubbed his temples with his fingertips at the sudden ache there.
He felt ashamed. Like a piece of shit, really. Gus never meant any harm in telling his story. In his own way, the amiable bartender was proud of Micah. But for some reason, Micah couldn’t handle the same old story tonight. He didn’t know why.
But he still felt like a piece of shit, regardless.
“Ah, hell. I’m sorry, Gus. I didn’t mean…” He rubbed his face and waved his hand limply. “It’s not you. Not feeling so good tonight.”
A few more minutes of silence. When Gus spoke, his voice was gruff yet apologetic. “S’all right, Micah. I…I tell the damn story too much, anyway. I should’ve given it a rest for once.”
Micah waved again, feeling tired. “It’s okay, Gus. Don’t know what the hell my problem is.”
“Well, maybe this’ll make you feel better. Heard tell Nuemann Development is tearing down Blackfoot Valley. Gonna bulldoze it under tomorrow. Close the final chapter in that wretched book, finally.”
Shock rippled through Micah. He looked up and stared at Gus. “They’re tearing it down? For real?”
Gus shrugged. “So I hear. Nuemann Development found a buyer for the land, so they’re pulling the whole thing down.”
A cold sensation blossomed in Micah’s chest. He stood abruptly. “I…I gotta go. See ya, Gus.”